Fighting for Their Lives

Featured — By Guest Author on March 16, 2010 at 08:00

The Supreme Court considers whether it’s cruel and unusual punishment to lock up teenagers for life without parole.

By Leticia Miranda, originally featured on Colorlines

Efrén Paredes Jr. was a 15-year-old honor roll student in rural Michigan when he was convicted of killing an assistant manager at the grocery store where he worked and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Today, he is one of almost 1,775 prisoners who were sentenced as youth and locked up for life without parole, according to a report released by The Sentencing Project, a prison reform research and advocacy organization. A staggering 77 percent of those youth are Black or Latino.

This June, the Supreme Court will decide whether young people can be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that didn’t result in a death. Separately, several states are also considering abolishing life without parole for youth.

The ruling will set a major legal precedent that may affect cases like Paredes’s. In the meantime, Paredes, who is now 36, is hoping that Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm will grant his commutation request by the end of her term this year and release him.

Paredes has been in prison since 1989, when he was accused of robbing the store in rural St. Joseph, Michigan and killing Rick Tetzlaff. Three local youth admitted to being involved in the crime and said Paredes fired the fatal shot. After a one-week trial, Paredes was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jason Williamson, a 16-year old white youth, received six months in juvenile prison. Alex and Eric Mui, 16- and 17-year-old Asian brothers, received 18 to 45 years in adult prison but have since been released. Eric Mui recanted his original statement five months later.

The case against Paredes had other questionable elements. The jury foreman worked with the widow of the assistant manager who was murdered. Store records indicated that Paredes had left work, and his family testified he was home close to half an hour before the robbery occurred. A white T-shirt with red stains that police found in Paredes’s home ended up being marked by red shoe polish.

Paredes claims that he was made an example of Michigan’s “get tough” approach to youth crime. His trial took place in the wake of the Central Park Jogger case, where a white Manhattan investment banker was allegedly raped by five Black and Latino youth, who were declared innocent of the crime more than a decade later. Paredes seemed to fit the mainstream representation of a violent youth in his small, white, Michigan town.

With media portrayals fueling national anxieties in 1989, lawmakers, police and conservative media pundits warned of the danger of a growing generation of violent youth. Throughout the 1990s, harsher sentencing laws required punishing youth more severely through the adult criminal justice system, and this resulted in striking racial disparities.

Today, Black youth are sent to adult courts at about 10 times the rate of white youth, and Latino youth are 43 percent more likely than white youth to be tried in adult court, according to recent studies, including a 2009 report by the Campaign for Youth Justice and the National Council of La Raza. Michigan, Paredes’s home state, ranks second in the country for the highest number of youth offenders serving life without parole. Many of these young people then live out their sentences in adult prison, where they are more vulnerable to physical assault, including rape.

Attorneys argued last November before the Supreme Court that in cases without murder sentencing youth to life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and disproportionately incarcerates youth of color.

“In nearly every other context, children are seen as different than adults. That shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to punishing kids, particularly because there is a lot of discretion when it comes to who is being punished,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal services organization. Stevenson was a lead attorney on one of the cases heard by the Supreme Court.

Attorneys representing people who were issued life sentences as children and other advocates believe that sentencing youth to life without parole sends the message that youth are beyond reform. They argue that youth are particularly more able to radically transform their lives. “Given the proper attention and care, we can be hopeful their lives can be turned around,” said Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project.

Across the country, legislative and judicial initiatives might also help curb these punitive sentencing laws that treat children and teen-aged youth as adults. Florida, Nebraska, Louisiana, California and Michigan are all considering state laws to abolish life without parole for youth. And a federal bill requiring regular parole reviews for juvenile life without parole cases is slowly moving through Congress.

The United States is the only country in the world that still sentences children to life without parole. According to a joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, about 60 percent of youth sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders, and about 25 percent of these youths were convicted of felony murder, which means they were present during the murder but did not kill anyone themselves.

Many youth who get life without parole don’t have the ability to pay for a private attorney, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative. Most of them come from low-income families, and some come from intense poverty. Many of them come from abusive homes and are more vulnerable to getting swept up into violence.

Even with a private attorney, the Paredes family said their lawyer felt pressured against defending Paredes too aggressively because of the media attention in their small Michigan town. When prosecutors introduced a song from NWA, a popular hip-hop group in the 1980s, to suggest that the lyrics demonstrated Paredes’s propensity towards violence, the argument flew by in court with hardly any rebuttal, said Velia Koppenhoefer, Paredes’s mother.

Paredes, who had dreams of going to college in business, wasn’t the only one affected by the sentencing.

“It’s the worst experience anyone can have in their life to see their child taken away from them, and there’s nothing you can do,” says Koppenhoefer. Now 51 years old, she suffers from high blood pressure and fibromyalgia, a painful muscle condition, which keeps her visits with Paredes at a minimum. Her husband suffers from heart disease. “We’re emotionally stressed out and financially as well,” she says.

Stevenson and Nellis both said that a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court would eventually benefit wrongful youth conviction cases like that of Paredes by challenging judicial and public notions of how to respond to children who have been charged with a crime.

“It’s really important that we rethink the way we have punished children and pushed them into the juvenile and adult systems. It’s destructive for these kids and their families, particularly communities of color,” said Stevenson.

Today at 36, Paredes has earned a doctorate in religious philosophy, certification as a Braille translator and has led two Latino political education organizations from the inside. But last December, after more than 20 years in prison, Paredes found himself accused of criminal activity by corrections officers, put into solitary confinement and transferred to a prison facility farther away from his family. He remains hopeful.

“I think you have to make a decision. Are you going to evolve as a person or let this defeat you? I’ve chosen to not be defeated by this,” he said in a phone conversation from prison last November.

Leticia Miranda is a writer based in Oakland, California.

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